Being prepared is all about having fallback options that will keep supplying you with necessities when normal methods fail. If law and order breaks down, you have the weapons and skills to defend your own home. Once the medication runs out you know which natural remedies to use. These fallbacks might not last forever, though, and depending on how long a crisis lasts – and how bad it is – you might need to find backups for the backups.
Let’s look at lighting. Say the power grid’s been down for years, you’re out of gasoline for the generator and the last box in the candle stockpile is nearly empty. How are you going to light your home at night? As usual, history gives us the answers. The ancient Romans lit their homes at night, but they didn’t have electricity. They did have candles, but they were expensive and smelly to use – beeswax was expensive in ancient Rome, so candles were made from rendered beef fat. Luckily there was a better solution.
Rome had a massive, sophisticated olive oil industry, with jars of oil from Italy and Spain shipped to every part of the Empire. A lot was used for cooking – but huge amounts were also used as lamp oil. Cleaner, cheaper and safer than candles, they were the leading source of light for centuries.
If you find yourself running out of lighting options, you can easily resurrect this ancient technology.
Certainly, you can buy oil lamps and bottles of expensive oil for them, but there’s no need to bother. You can get just as good results with a home-made lamp fueled by vegetable oil. In fact, vegetable oil, as a fuel, has some real advantages over lamp oil:
- You can re-purpose used cooking oil, giving you a zero-cost fuel and helping with waste disposal.
- Vegetable oil doesn’t give off toxic fumes as it burns. If you use olive oil, there isn’t even any odor.
- In the long term, vegetable oil is a renewable fuel. You can grow canola or sunflowers and extract oil from them.
Making a lamp
An oil lamp is the easiest kind of light source to make – it’s much simpler to make than a candle, and will last a lot longer. In fact, oil lamps over 2,000 years old can still be used if you just add a new wick and fill them with oil. The basic design is also incredibly adaptable. It’s possible to make a working lamp out of a wide range of materials, including things that would otherwise go in the trash.
There are only two basic components to an oil lamp:
- A container to hold the oil
- A wick to draw oil up to where it can be burned
That’s really it. You’ll probably have to improvise a wick holder as well, unless you’re using a purpose-designed lamp. Traditional oil lamps were usually made of metal or clay, and they had a wick holder built in. Often the lamp would look like a small, flattened teapot, with a handle at one end and a spout at the other – the wick would be placed in the spout. If you’re good at pottery, it’s very easy to make a replica of an old oil lamp. Otherwise you’ll need to improvise – but an improvised lamp will work just as well.
Finding a container
The first thing you need to do is get a suitable container to convert into a lamp. There’s a whole list of options here. A glass jar can make a good lamp, especially for outdoor use. Any small clay, metal or earthenware bowl can be turned into a lamp. A metal tin like the ones some brands of skin cream come in is also ideal.
Unless you’re using a jar, it’s best to pick a shallow container that’s wider than it is deep. There are two reasons for this. One is that the level of oil won’t fall as rapidly. The other is that it’s safer, because it’s more difficult to knock over and spill. Having said that, although they have a naked flame oil lamps are actually pretty safe. If one does get knocked over the spilled oil will usually put the wick out. It’s still not a good idea to leave them unsupervised, especially if there are children around, but they’re much safer than candles.
Making a wick
For a wick, you need a piece of twine or cord made from natural fibers. Don’t use synthetic fiber – it will melt and possibly burn, releasing toxic fumes. Cotton is ideal, but flax, nettle and other natural materials will work too. Look for cord with a fairly smooth surface; if you use a rough or hairy cord it’s likely to char badly. You might also be able to use silica cord as a wick; this is very heat-resistant, but it might not wick all kinds of oil very well.
You want a fairly thick cord for your wick – just under a quarter inch is perfect. If all you have is thinner twine, twist it. Take a couple of feet of twine, tie one end to something and twist the other end until it’s tensioned and becoming rigid. Then, keeping some tension on it so it doesn’t knot up, bring the ends together and let go the middle. As it unwinds it will twist around itself, forming a thicker cord. The tighter you can twist it, the better. If you’re starting with really thin twine you can repeat this process until your wick is thick enough.
Holding it together
Now you have to find a way to hold the wick in place. If you’re using a metal tin with a lid, there’s an easy solution – just punch a hole in the lid, with a diameter slightly smaller than the wick. Then wrap one end of the wick in tape to stop it snagging and feed it through the hole from the bottom. Next remove the tape and pull the wick back until about a quarter inch is projecting through the lid. You don’t want any more than this, or it will burn oil too quickly and produce a smoky flame. The wick itself is likely to burn, too.
If you’re using a bowl or jar, make a wick stand out of wire. It’s best to use stainless steel wire for this, and it doesn’t have to be very thick – just enough to support its own weight and that of the wick. You can also use galvanized wire, but take the zinc coating off with sandpaper first – if heated, it can release toxic fumes. Copper works too, but needs regular cleaning. The green oxide coating it forms can also release toxic fumes.
Related: How To Preserve Beef in Glass Jars
To make the stand, start with a thick nail and wind one end of the wire wound it to form a coil. You only need half a dozen turns. Now bend the wire so it’s in line with the coil and leave a straight length, just long enough to hold the coil about a quarter inch above where the surface of the oil will be. Finally, bend the rest of the wire into a circular base so it will stand upright. Now feed the wick through the coil so a quarter inch is poking out; stand the holder upright in the bowl or jar, and you’re done.
Whichever type of wick holder you use, make sure the tail of the wick is long enough that a couple of inches are lying on the bottom of the container.
So, now you’ve made your oil lamp. Now all you have to do is fill it with oil. Any kind of vegetable oil will do; olive is best, but the others work fine too. If it’s used cooking oil, strain it to get any crispy bits out, then simply pour it into the container.
Before you use the lamp for the first time let it stand long enough for the oil to soak the whole wick. Then simply light the top of it. If the flame is too smoky, trip the top of the wick slightly until it burns clean; if it’s too small or goes out frequently, push a fraction of an inch more wick through the lid or coil.
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